Dunja Cvjetićanin was born in Yugoslavia in 1989 and moved to Australia with her family as a baby. Repeated family trips “back to the old country” throughout her childhood ensured that Dunja’s love for and connection to the Balkans always stayed strong. Dunja is one of the Founding Co-editors of be:longing and is extremely excited at the prospect of connecting with others who feel a similar connection to other places and cultures as she does.
It’s a searing hot, late July’s day in Vojvodina, in the north of Serbia. 37 degrees, blue-sky-sunny, and not even the faintest sigh of wind. Motivated to avoid spending another day of heat-induced lethargy on the couch at my grandmother’s house, my mama Vesna and I set out in the Citroen my parents and I rented in France a few weeks earlier, heading east. We’re on holiday in Europe, escaping the cold of Canberra for a month or so. We crossed the Danube from Croatia into Serbia a week ago and have been sizzling in the summer heat of the little town of Sombor, where my parents grew up and where I was born, ever since.
Today, mama and I are heading back to the Danube and crossing back into Croatia so she can show me the plot of land her parents bought back in the 1970s. My mum lovingly refers to this plot of land as the vinograd (vinyard). The land is so fertile and the climate just right in this part of the world that it’s perfect for growing wine grapes. Just a half hour’s drive from Sombor, the vinograd was always close enough, but also far enough away to be an escape from the hustle and bustle of our industrious little town.
Back in the 1970s, my maternal grandparents did indeed have a vinyard at the vinograd. This all ended pretty soon, though, when my mama’s mama passed away, too young at 42, in the early 1980s. Because of this, I guess, the vinograd always existed as a symbol of hope in my mama’s mind; of opportunity and possibility cut short. Like a blank canvas, mum often dreamed about spending more time at the vinograd and creating a fantastic reality there, full of life and food and colour; a place she would come back to as a fully-fledged adult, where she would one day take her children, and they their children, and so on. Alas, life, and war, and a whole series of strange, unfortunate events in the Balkans in the 1990s meant that mama never quite got the opportunity to make that dream a reality. Her new family (my dad, my brother, and baby me) moved to Australia in 1990, and the rest is history.
Driving our rented Citroen towards the vinograd this hot July day, I can’t help but wonder what would have been if the wars hadn’t happened; if we had returned to Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s as my parents had intended and been able to turn the vinograd into the place my mother dreamed it could have been. I imagine celebrating my 12th birthday there – a dozen or so kids enjoying the last week of August and eating summer watermelon at plastic-covered tables. I imagine spending weekends there in late autumns as a teenager, helping my parents prune the grapevines to make sure they would bear as much fruit as possible the following year. I imagine going there in springtime in my early 20s, to check on how much damage the winter snows inflicted on the cottage my parents built there, and, seeing the crumbling mortar, wonder how long it’d be before my dad again said, “Dunja, come with me to the vinograd this weekend – we’re remortaring the cottage, head to toe.”
Mama and I arrive at the vinograd at around 1pm. The Citroen’s showing 38 degrees, and my skin feels the heat when I extend our passports to the Croatian border control officer on the other side of the Danube. We drive up the hill in the town of Batina, and after just a few minutes of driving, we get to the dirt road where the vinograd is located. Inching slowly forward, we start to enter into a dense, green tunnel created by a thick blackberry bush.
40 or 50 metres in, mama tells me to stop and points to the right. “This is it”, she says. I gaze out of the Citroen’s window, seeing nothing but a wall of thick blackberry bush. “Wait – this?” I ask. “This”, she confirms. This – this wall of blackberries – is the vinograd. It’s blackberries and greenness as far as the eye can see. It’s a brambly, electro-green forest, about twenty shades brighter than the eucalyptus trees my Australian-groomed eyes are used to. The berries are in all possible states of maturation and all possible shades of purple. It’s also cool here, under the summer shade. The freshness of the air is almost intoxicating.
“We’d need to do a fair bit, I guess”, mama states. “Hire someone with a bulldozer to go through. I’m sure they wouldn’t need too long.”
We park the car and step out. Allowing my eyes to wander, I try to make sense of the wall in front of me; all around. Like a Magic Eye in weekend newspapers, I struggle to make sense of the picture, but I feel like there’s something there. Something. I feel it. I try to see through, between, under; to vivisect the living thing. After a few minutes, I feel like I really am seeing through, between, under. I see mama’s vision for the place when she was younger. Here, an orderly vinyard; there, a cottage; over there, a Christmas weekend spent inside the cottage, with snow crowding the windows. We lose ourselves in the bramble that day, mama and I, breathing in the fresh forest air and cherishing the summer shade.
Driving back to Sombor in the afternoon, I can’t help but feel that, in a way, the vinograd is perfect the way it is right now. Perfect for us, anyway. With the blackberry bush spreading itself lazily, crazily, all over it, the vinograd is a victim of circumstance; subject to the forces of nature that surround it and shape it. There was a grand plan for that little plot of land. It had potential! Just like us. My parents had plans for themselves, and for us, back in the 80s. They dreamed of an orderly life in Yugoslavia, enjoying the company of friends and family and never having to learn the ways of a new people, a new country, a new blackberry bush. And yet, life, like nature, forces its way through our plans sometimes, and changes the plots of land we all are forever.
© Dunja Cvjetićanin, 2016